In Africa, Rape as a Risk Factor

By Holly Burkhalter
Monday, August 14, 2006

President Bush's global emergency plan to fight AIDS began with the radical proposition that men, women and children in Africa didn't have to die of the disease. Three years later that radical proposition has become wonderfully ordinary. The question of whether the poor should have expensive AIDS drugs has been answered with a sturdy affirmative: 561,000 Africans are now receiving life-saving medication.

But there is bad news, too: The HIV/AIDS prevention strategies have stunningly failed African women and girls. Rape of women and children by partners, husbands, relatives, neighbors and strangers has put hundreds of thousands at risk of violent transmission of HIV.

Medical experts have shown a clear association between HIV exposure and coerced sex. Wives who suffer violence if they request condom use or faithfulness are at higher risk of AIDS than unmarried women and girls. That is why defeating the AIDS pandemic requires a second radical proposition: that African women and girls have the right to protection under their own countries' laws.

Why is this concept radical? Because public justice systems in many AIDS-burdened countries are broken or virtually inaccessible to poor girls and women. Rape and beatings are simply the norm, and deterrence and accountability for these crimes in Africa is as rare as AIDS drugs used to be.

An international consensus has emerged that violence and degradation of women and girls are key factors in the rapid spread of HIV among them. And yet investment in protection for children and women is not on the international radar screen. Africa's justice systems are thought to be too corrupt, understaffed or incompetent to fix. International experts instead focus on long-term development strategies such as economic empowerment and expansion of girls' education. Foreign donors prefer public awareness campaigns to hands-on help in getting rapists and batterers off the street and into jail.

Against all odds, however, some crusading human rights lawyers are doing what they can to change things one case at a time. Kenyan lawyers with International Justice Mission, for example, have represented dozens of children from the slum neighborhood of Kibera, Nairobi, who had been sexually assaulted. Working alongside Kenyan officials of goodwill, IJM investigators and lawyers have taken these cases before local courts and obtained convictions.

It is a laborious process. Last month a Kenyan court convicted a pedophile who had raped our client, a 4-year-old girl. It took five years to close the case. But this victory did more than put a rapist behind bars. It gave heart to other victims in Kibera and sent a clear message to future perpetrators.

Making more cases like this little girl's will require generous investment in the country's public justice system. Kenya spends about 3 cents per year per capita on prosecutions and investigations by lawyers, and virtually none of these resources are available to the people most at risk of sexual violence and HIV exposure: women and girls in poor neighborhoods. Seven out of eight Kenyan prosecutors are police officers, not lawyers, and few among them have adequate legal training.

If child rape victims postpone the search for justice until national courts are ready for them, they will have a long wait. Rather, the approach to national judiciaries in AIDS-burdened Africa should be to "build it as we go." That means ramping up investigations, prosecutions and convictions from the dozens to the hundreds, then thousands, while simultaneously training, equipping and recruiting police, prosecutors and judges.

As in the case of health systems, the greatest need of judiciaries is for skilled human resources. Local police need training, management, salary support and deployment to underserved rural villages and towns. Scaling up of rape cases requires DNA labs, rape test kits, witness protection capacity, referral systems, vehicles and computers. Corrupt or abusive police and judicial staff should be fired and prosecuted; incentives and benefits should reward excellence and confer prestige on police and prosecutors who take on sexual violence.

Rape is an HIV risk factor for tens of millions of African women and children. It requires something more than condoms, education or "empowerment." Functioning judicial systems are the next frontier in confronting the pandemic and preventing its spread. The 24,000 activists, government officials and donors meeting this week at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto should commit the funding, ideas, technical support and personnel needed to make it a reality.

The writer is vice president of International Justice Mission, a global human rights agency.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company